Professional Learning

Focusing on Teacher Engagement to Improve Professional Development

A national survey provides ideas on how PD can be more aligned to teachers’ needs—even during a pandemic.

June 2, 2020
julief514 / iStock

Over the past couple of months, educators all around the world have quickly come up to speed on how to accomplish distance learning. We moved just as quickly from thinking about this need as a stopgap solution, what A.J. Juliani calls emergency remote learning, to thinking more about best practices and the need to create a muscle memory of good distance learning pedagogy—a model we’re likely to use for a while.

Not only have we adopted tools to help our students learn remotely, but we also adapted to the professional development onslaught meant to help us learn how to be flexible, engaging, and standards-based while teaching students at a distance.

Rethinking Professional Development

We’ve all been stuck in stale PD sessions, sitting there during a sit-and-get and checking our email over and over and over. At this time, as we’re rethinking so much else, we have a chance to rethink PD. Lack of engagement cripples learning, whether we’re talking about students or teachers. And when we learn online, the need to focus on engagement is even higher than when we’re face-to-face.

All of this work has prompted me to take another look at the results of a teacher engagement survey I conducted earlier this school year. I’ve been intrigued by the impact of engagement on learners for some time now. As a once disengaged student myself—one who nevertheless decided to become an educator—I’ve focused on engagement when working on curriculum design, implementation, and PD. In 2017, I did a nationwide survey of students in sixth to 12th grade to learn just what strategies students find most engaging, research I shared in Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement. In 2018–19, I surveyed teachers about what strategies engaged them the most and helped them learn most effectively.

I want to share some of the major takeaways from this teacher engagement survey, looking through the lens of our current reality. I hope this might help schools and districts plan more engaging learning opportunities for teachers, administrators, and staff, both online and off.

Survey Findings

The respondents in my survey are teachers working in different schooling models: traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and home schools. They teach across grades from pre-K to 12th; a few work in higher education. I focused my survey questions on when, where, and how educators like to learn.

Some of the findings:

  • When asked where they prefer to learn, over 25 percent responded that they preferred to learn at home, and 30 percent preferred to attend a conference. Another third said they preferred traditional PD sessions, either off-site or at school.
  • When asked when they like to learn, about 75 percent said that they preferred times outside of the school day.
  • When asked how they liked to learn, more than a third of respondents selected asynchronous methods like webinars, independent reading, and Twitter.

Taken together, these results indicate that most current PD doesn’t take teachers’ preferences into account. Sending teachers to conferences is common, but many prefer to learn in other places. Likewise PD offered during school hours neglects those who are looking to learn during other times.

Connections to Student Engagement

It’s important to note that teachers need not wonder what lures students to learn—both groups share preferred strategies, so there’s a direct alignment between them. In both of my surveys, groups agreed on many of the same strategies.

Here are three of the higher-ranking engagement strategies for both teachers and students:

  • Provide access to technology and present information visually,
  • Make it meaningful, and
  • Let us talk and collaborate.

Note: Even though our preferred engagement strategies align with those of students, when planning lessons we need to keep our differences in mind as well—particularly differences in our developmental maturity and literacy levels. You may have a high tolerance for text on a slide deck, but to a student that may look like a wall of text that becomes an obstacle to learning. And while you might be able to focus on online content for 45 minutes, remember that even a high schooler in AP classes might drift after 20.

Ultimately, engagement strategies are as important as content standards—or perhaps even more important—when we’re pursuing depth of learning.

How Can We Improve Professional Development?

The answers on my teacher engagement survey give me some ideas for how to improve PD. Since respondents were split between preferring to go to conferences and preferring to learn at home, we can draw from what they like about conferences even in times like these when travel is not an option.

  • Honor the structure of a formal conference by scheduling sessions and workshops using class codes and video conferencing links focused on different topics.
  • Include a brief keynote speech to unify participants with a grounding concept, and offer a way for teachers to have informal conversations.
  • Provide PD that is essential and boiled down to its essence—keep it focused on what’s most impactful and meaningful. Teachers’ attention spans are not infinite.
  • Bake in time for teachers to collaborate and talk with each other. Use breakout rooms and set up collaborative documents, slide decks, and platforms so all teachers can work together—both synchronously and asynchronously.
  • Ensure that slide decks are more image-based than text-based. A page of nothing but bullet points or sentences is about as engaging as a five-paragraph essay.
  • Provide hands-on learning and learning-by-doing opportunities using tools like Nearpod, Pear Deck, or Edpuzzle.

The real takeaway is that this list can be used not only with adult learners but with our students as well. Think about what engages you as a learner—odds are, it will engage your students too.

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